Living somewhere, our natural instinct is to develop a sense of belonging: to get to know its character or parts of its history, discover places we like to spend time in, and those we would wish to avoid. In short, we make it our own. However, because there is simply too much of London to claim, the people in this city carve out their space, and identify that as ‘their London’. To outsiders, the city can appear sprawling and faceless with no obvious boundaries. But London is all about divisions, not necessarily antagonistic, nevertheless carefully defined. The people of London make strategic forays into others’ spaces, but always return to their own with an ultimate feeling of homecoming.
The Thames is the most obvious physical divider of London, and the two sides are as rival villages. North Londoners seem to assume that south of the river is bare countryside, whilst south Londoners think of north London as an industrial wasteland. For some reason, although the centre of London is in fact north of the Thames, it is accepted by South London as neutral territory. Passports are joked about on both sides.
My peers, when talking about where they would like to settle, rarely consider crossing the water. I myself have grown up in south London, and would honestly never even consider living in north London. Peculiar, as my nature is not unadventurous, but some things are just not to be meddled with.
Within the two halves are drawn more boundaries, also around the compass points. I recently moved from southwest London, to the southeast. In the southeast, the southwest is perceived as richer, with more desirable, lower crime areas. Working in a pub near where I now live, serving people who have lived in the same area for the last 30 years or more, I am described as ‘the southwest girl, gone bad’. The confusion begins when people come from somewhere dead in the centre of the south, with a different postcode for each end of their borough. Then it is up to the inhabitants themselves how they wish to define themselves. Some of London quite clearly in the northwest, would define itself categorically as ‘West’. All quite ridiculous, but all part of London life.
There are various areas that have developed strong identities from a dense population of one culture. Golders Green and the surrounding areas in northwest London are recognisably Jewish. The name ‘Goldstein & Sons’ over the shop doors; the synagogues; profusions of bagel bakeries and the number of orthodox costumes that appear on the streets all stake their personal claims for the space. Conversely, walking down The Broadway, in Southall (in deepest west London) you would be forgiven for thinking you were somewhere in Delhi rather than anywhere in England. The place is full of Indian spice smells, colourful fabrics, fantastic saris, and the atmosphere is that of a bazaar, not a high street.
However, so many different cultures have visited, developed, affected or settled in London, that new boundaries and divisions are always being created. There is not really room for a single race, religion or culture to claim an entire area any more. Instead they move in, and sit around or on top of each other.
If you take a tube to Liverpool Street, one of the first things to confront you as you emerge onto Bishopsgate, is the ABN Ambro building. The enormous glass structure has a blank look to it, with a single L.E.D. panel showing the stock exchange rates. This famous landmark of capitalism, (from whose glass windows desperate bankrupt businessmen hurled themselves) backs on to the covered market of Spitalfields. Here a passing Chinese herbalist can inform you of the impurities in your diet, and anti-capitalist leaflets tell you of the next ‘March For Peace’. Continuing past a Victorian Church, down a tiny side road, you appear on Brick Lane, where the bagel shops from the Jewish ‘occupation’ of the East End, sit happily next to the hundreds of curry houses, from the infusion of a different East into London.
The strange thing is that every one of these cultures claims the area as its own. And they are all perfectly justified in doing so. When someone asks me to show him or her ‘London’, I am tempted to ask “which one?”
The centre of London is easily defined in writing. You can name ‘Theatre Land’, ‘Sexy Soho’, ‘Restaurants Galore’, ‘China Town’ and ‘The Big Shops’. These are all good recognisable symbols of London, and everyone living there knows where they are. Unfortunately no one ever tells you just how close all these places are to each other, or the fact that different identities have arrived and claimed parts of these previously monopolised areas.
If you wander round Soho today, you can still see the ‘vice-dens’ of the 1970s. Some of the old venues are still there: sorry states of crumbling paint and (apparently) unoriginal and dull topless cabaret. Then there are the Goth bars, hidden underground and full of green neon light from the eighties. In the last fifteen years, the gay community has carved out a couple of streets for its own. Most recently, when peering down into a basement, or turning into a Dickensian-looking side street, you discover that you are in fact gazing into a post-production studio, or a small desktop publishing company for the technology market. Clothes shops back on to strip bars, which lead to street markets, which hide record shops, which are just round the corner from the best Italian restaurant in town.
When people describe London as a melting pot, then it is these areas that I always think of. They display a seamless transition and movement of cultures and social values, yet everything fits together. Personally, I just like the romanticism of the description. If like me you have always lived in London, there is no mystery to it at all, it is simply where things are located, and in London that means everything on top of everything else. However, it is important to know exactly which part of the picture is yours.
Things constantly develop and change, as they should in an industrial and cultural hub known as a capital city. However nothing ever quite completely disappears into this so-called melting pot. It is just built around and added to. After a while, you begin to realise that London is a number of mosaics, each with a defining boundary. These then, are laid on top of each other, until the original pictures are almost unidentifiable: until you are actually inside them and have claimed them for your own.